Swami Vivekananda - Biography


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My Inspiration, my guru and my everything..the man who makes me...

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Swami Vivekananda - Biography

  1. 1. PREFACE Swami Vivekananda's inspiring personality was well known both in India and in America during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. The unknown monk of India suddenly leapt into fame at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, at which he represented Hinduism. His vast knowledge of Eastern and Western culture as well as his deep spiritual insight, fervid eloquence, brilliant conversation, broad human sympathy, colourful personality, and handsome figure made an irresistible appeal to the many types of Americans who came in contact with him. People who saw or heard Vivekananda even once still cherish his memory after a lapse of more than half a century. In America Vivekananda's mission was the interpretation of India's spiritual culture, especially in its Vedantic setting. He also tried to enrich the religious consciousness of the Americans through the rational and humanistic teachings of the Vedanta philosophy. In America he became India's spiritual ambassador and pleaded eloquently for better understanding between India and the New World in order to create a healthy synthesis of East and West, of religion and science. In his own motherland Vivekananda is regarded as the patriot saint of modern India and an inspirer of her dormant national consciousness. To the Hindus he preached the ideal of a strength-giving and man-making religion. Service to man as the visible manifestation of the Godhead was the special form of worship he advocated for the Indians, devoted as they were to the rituals and myths of their ancient faith. Many political leaders of India have publicly acknowledged their indebtedness to Swami Vivekananda. The Swami's mission was both national and international. A lover of mankind, he strove to promote peace and human brotherhood on the spiritual foundation of the Vedantic Oneness of existence. A mystic of the highest order, Vivekananda had a direct and intuitive experience of Reality. He derived his ideas from that unfailing source of wisdom and often presented them in the soul-stirring language of poetry. The natural tendency of Vivekananda's mind, like that of his Master, Ramakrishna, was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human suffering in East and West alike. It might appear that his mind seldom found a point of rest in its oscillation between contemplation of God and service to man. Be that as it may, he chose, in obedience to a higher call, service to man as his mission on earth; and this choice has endeared him to people in the West, Americans in particular.
  2. 2. In the course of a short life of thirty-nine years (1863-1902), of which only ten were devoted to public activities — and those, too, in the midst of acute physical suffering — he left for posterity his four classics: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga, Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga, all of which are outstanding treatises on Hindu philosophy. In addition, he delivered innumerable lectures, wrote inspired letters in his own hand to his many friends and disciples, composed numerous poems, and acted as spiritual guide to the many seekers who came to him for instruction. He also organized the Ramakrishna Order of monks, which is the most outstanding religious organization of modern India. It is devoted to the propagation of the Hindu spiritual culture not only in the Swami's native land, but also in America and in other parts of the world. Swami Vivekananda once spoke of himself as a 'condensed India.' His life and teachings are of inestimable value to the West for an understanding of the mind of Asia. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called the Swami the 'paragon of Vedantists.' Max Müller and Paul Deussen, the famous Orientalists of the nineteenth century, held him in genuine respect and affection. 'His words,' writes Romain Rolland, 'are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years' distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!'
  3. 3. EARLY YEARS Swami Vivekananda, the great soul loved and revered in East and West alike as the rejuvenator of Hinduism in India and the preacher of its eternal truths abroad, was born at 6:33, a few minutes before sunrise, on Monday, January 12, 1863. It was the day of the great Hindu festival Makarasamkranti, when special worship is offered to the Ganga by millions of devotees. Thus the future Vivekananda first drew breath when the air above the sacred river not far from the house was reverberating with the prayers, worship, and religious music of thousands of Hindu men and women. Before Vivekananda was born, his mother, like many other pious Hindu mothers, had observed religious vows, fasted, and prayed so that she might be blessed with a son who would do honour to the family. She requested a relative who was living in Varanasi to offer special worship to the Vireswara Siva of that holy place and seek His blessings; for Siva, the great god of renunciation, dominated her thought. One night she dreamt that this supreme Deity aroused Himself from His meditation and agreed to be born as her son. When she woke she was filled with joy. The mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi, accepted the child as a boon from Vireswara Siva and named him Vireswara. The family, however, gave him the name of Narendranath Datta, calling him, for short, Narendra, or more endearingly, Naren. The Datta family of Calcutta, into which Narendranath had been born, was well known for its affluence, philanthropy, scholarship, and independent spirit. The grand father, Durgacharan, after the birth of his first son, had renounced the world in search of God. The father, Viswanath, an attorney-at-law of the High Court of Calcutta, was versed in English and Persian literature and often entertained himself and his friends by reciting from the Bible and the poetry of Hafiz, both of which, he believed, contained truths unmatched by human thinking elsewhere. He was particularly attracted to the Islamic culture, with which he was familiar because of his close contact with the educated Moslems of North-western India. Moreover, he derived a large income from his law practice and, unlike his father, thoroughly enjoyed the worldly life. An expert in cookery, he prepared rare dishes and liked to share them with his friends. Travel was another of his hobbies. Though agnostic in religion and a mocker of social conventions, he possessed a large heart and often went out of his way to support idle relatives, some of whom were given to drunkenness. Once, when Narendra protested against his lack of judgement, his father said: 'How can you understand the great misery of human life? When you realize the depths of men's suffering, you will sympathize with these unfortunate creatures who try to forget their sorrows, even though only for a short while, in the oblivion created
  4. 4. by intoxicants.' Naren's father, however, kept a sharp eye on his children and would not tolerate the slightest deviation from good manners. Bhuvaneswari Devi, the mother, was cast in a different mould. Regal in appearance and gracious in conduct, she belonged to the old tradition of Hindu womanhood. As mistress of a large household, she devoted her spare time to sewing and singing, being particularly fond of the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, large portions of which she had memorized. She became the special refuge of the poor, and commanded universal respect because of her calm resignation to God, her inner tranquillity, and her dignified detachment in the midst of her many arduous duties. Two sons were born to her besides Narendranath, and four daughters, two of whom died at an early age. Narendra grew up to be a sweet, sunny-tempered, but very restless boy. Two nurses were necessary to keep his exuberant energy under control, and he was a great tease to his sisters. In order to quiet him, the mother often put his head under the cold-water tap, repeating Siva's name, which always produced the desired effect. Naren felt a child's love for birds and animals, and this characteristic reappeared during the last days of his life. Among his boyhood pets were a family cow, a monkey, a goat, a peacock, and several pigeons and guinea-pigs. The coachman of the family, with his turban, whip, and bright- coloured livery, was his boyhood ideal of a magnificent person, and he often expressed the ambition to be like him when he grew up. Narendra bore a striking resemblance to the grand-father who had renounced the world to lead a monastic life, and many thought that the latter had been reborn in him. The youngster developed a special fancy for wandering monks, whose very sight would greatly excite him. One day when such a monk appeared at the door and asked for alms, Narendra gave him his only possession, the tiny piece of new cloth that was wrapped round his waist. Thereafter, whenever a monk was seen in the neighbourhood, Narendra would be locked in a room. But even then he would throw out of the window whatever he found near at hand as an offering to the holy man. In the meantime, he was receiving his early education from his mother, who taught him the Bengali alphabet and his first English words, as well as stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. During his childhood Narendra, like many other Hindu children of his age, developed a love for the Hindu deities, of whom he had learnt from his mother. Particularly attracted by the heroic story of Rama and his faithful consort Sita, he procured their images, bedecked them with flowers, and worshipped them in his boyish fashion. But disillusionment came when he heard someone denounce marriage vehemently as a terrible bondage. When he had thought this over he discarded Rama and Sita as unworthy of worship. In their place he installed the image of Siva, the god of renunciation, who was the ideal of the yogis.
  5. 5. Nevertheless he retained a fondness for the Ramayana. At this time he daily experienced a strange vision when he was about to fall asleep. Closing his eyes, he would see between his eyebrows a ball of light of changing colours, which would slowly expand and at last burst, bathing his whole body in a white radiance. Watching this light he would gradually fall asleep. Since it was a daily occurrence, he regarded the phenomenon as common to all people, and was surprised when a friend denied ever having seen such a thing. Years later, however, Narendra's spiritual teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, said to him, 'Naren, my boy, do you see a light when you go to sleep?' Ramakrishna knew that such a vision indicated a great spiritual past and an inborn habit of meditation. The vision of light remained with Narendra until the end of his life, though later it lost its regularity and intensity. While still a child Narendra practised meditation with a friend before the image of Siva. He had heard that the holy men of ancient India would become so absorbed in contemplation of God that their hair would grow and gradually enter into the earth, like the roots of the banyan tree. While meditating, therefore, he would open his eyes, now and then, to see if his own hair had entered into the earth. Even so, during meditation, he often became unconscious of the world. On one occasion he saw in a vision a luminous person of serene countenance who was carrying the staff and water-bowl of a monk. The apparition was about to say something when Naren became frightened and left the room. He thought later that perhaps this had been a vision of Buddha. At the age of six he was sent to a primary school. One day, however, he repeated at home some of the vulgar words that he had learnt from his classmates, whereupon his disgusted parents took him out of the school and appointed a private tutor, who conducted classes for him and some other children of the neighbourhood in the worship hall of the house. Naren soon showed a precocious mind and developed a keen memory. Very easily he learnt by heart the whole of a Sanskrit grammar and long passages from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Some of the friendships he made at this age lasted his whole lifetime. At school he was the undisputed leader. When playing his favourite game of 'King and the Court,' he would assume the role of the monarch and assign to his friends the parts of the ministers, commander-in-chief, and other state officials. He was marked from birth to be a leader of men, as his name Narendra (lord of men) signified. Even at that early age he questioned why one human being should be considered superior to another. In his father's office separate tobacco pipes were provided for clients belonging to the different castes, as orthodox Hindu custom required, and the pipe from which the Moslems smoked was set quite apart. Narendra once smoked tobacco from all the pipes, including the one marked for the
  6. 6. Moslems, and when reprimanded, remarked, 'I cannot see what difference it makes.' During these early years, Narendra's future personality was influenced by his gifted father and his saintly mother, both of whom kept a chastening eye upon him. The father had his own manner of discipline. For example, when, in the course of an argument with his mother, the impetuous boy once uttered a few rude words and the report came to the father, Viswanath did not directly scold his son, but wrote with charcoal on the door of his room: 'Narendra today said to his mother — ' and added the words that had been used. He wanted Narendra's friends to know how rudely he had treated his mother. Another time Narendra bluntly asked his father, 'What have you done for me?' Instead of being annoyed, Viswanath said, 'Go and look at yourself in the mirror, and then you will know.' Still another day, Narendra said to his father, 'How shall I conduct myself in the world?' 'Never show surprise at anything,' his father replied. This priceless advice enabled Narendranath, in his future chequered life, to preserve his serenity of mind whether dwelling with princes in their palaces or sharing the straw huts of beggars. The mother, Bhuvaneswari, played her part in bringing out Narendranath's innate virtues. When he told her, one day, of having been unjustly treated in school, she said to him, in consolation: 'My child, what does it matter, if you are in the right? Always follow the truth without caring about the result. Very often you may have to suffer injustice or unpleasant consequences for holding to the truth; but you must not, under any circumstances, abandon it.' Many years later Narendranath proudly said to an audience, 'I am indebted to my mother for whatever knowledge I have acquired.' One day, when he was fighting with his play-fellows, Narendra accidentally fell from the porch and struck his forehead against a stone. The wound bled profusely and left a permanent scar over his right eye. Years later, when Ramakrishna heard of this accident, he remarked: 'In a way it was a good thing. If he had not thus lost some of his blood, he would have created havoc in the world with his excessive energy.' In 1871, at the age of eight, Narendra entered high school. His exceptional intelligence was soon recognized by his teachers and classmates. Though at first
  7. 7. reluctant to study English because of its foreign origin, he soon took it up with avidity. But the curriculum consumed very little of his time. He used most of his inexhaustible energy in outside activities. Games of various kinds, many of which he invented or improvised kept him occupied. He made an imitation gas- works and a factory for aerating water, these two novelties having just been introduced in Calcutta. He organized an amateur theatrical company and a gymnasium, and took lessons in fencing, wrestling, rowing, and other manly sports. He also tried his hand at the art of cooking. Intensely restless, he would soon tire of one pastime and seek a new one. With his friends he visited the museum and the zoological garden. He arbitrated the disputes of his play-fellows and was a favourite with the people of the neighbourhood. Everybody admired his courage, straight-forwardness, and simplicity. From an early age this remarkable youth had no patience with fear or superstition. One of his boyish pranks had been to climb a flowering tree belonging to a neighbour, pluck the flowers, and do other mischief. The owner of the tree, finding his remonstrances unheeded, once solemnly told Naren's friends that the tree was guarded by a white-robed ghost who would certainly wring their necks if they disturbed his peace. The boys were frightened and kept away. But Narendra persuaded them to follow him back, and he climbed the tree, enjoying his usual measure of fun, and broke some branches by way of further mischief. Turning to his friends, he then said: 'What asses you all are! See, my neck is still there. The old man's story is simply not true. Don't believe what others say unless you your-selves know it to be true.' These simple but bold words were an indication of his future message to the world. Addressing large audiences in the later years, he would often say: 'Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.' The following incident illustrates his courage and presence of mind. He one day wished to set up a heavy trapeze in the gymnasium, and so asked the help of some people who were there. Among them was an English sailor. The trapeze fell and knocked the sailor unconscious, and the crowd, thinking him dead, ran away for fear of the police. But Naren tore a piece from his cloth, bandaged the sailor's wound, washed his face with water, and gradually revived him. Then he moved the wounded man to a neighbouring schoolhouse where he nursed him for a week. When the sailor had recovered, Naren sent him away with a little purse collected from his friends. All through this period of boyish play Narendra retained his admiration for the life of the wandering monk. Pointing to a certain line on the palm of his hand, he
  8. 8. would say to his friends: 'I shall certainly become a sannyasin. A palmist has predicted it.' As Narendra grew into adolescence, his temperament showed a marked change. He became keen about intellectual matters, read serious books on history and literature, devoured newspapers, and attended public meetings. Music was his favourite pastime. He insisted that it should express a lofty idea and arouse the feelings of the musician. At the age of fifteen he experienced his first spiritual ecstasy. The family was journeying to Raipur in the Central Provinces, and part of the trip had to be made in a bullock cart. On that particular day the air was crisp and clear; the trees and creepers were covered with green leaves and many-coloured blossoms; birds of brilliant plumage warbled in the woods. The cart was moving along a narrow pass where the lofty peaks rising on the two sides almost touched each other. Narendra's eyes spied a large bee-hive in the cleft of a giant cliff, and suddenly his mind was filled with awe and reverence for the Divine Providence. He lost outer consciousness and lay thus in the cart for a long time. Even after returning to the sense-perceived world he radiated joy. Another interesting mental phenomenon may be mentioned here; for it was one often experienced by Narendranath. From boyhood, on first beholding certain people or places, he would feel that he had known them before; but how long before he could never remember. One day he and some of his companions were in a room in a friend's house, where they were discussing various topics. Something was mentioned, and Narendra felt at once that he had on a previous occasion talked about the same subject with the selfsame friends in that very house. He even correctly described every nook and corner of the building, which he had not seen before. He tried at first to explain this singular phenomenon by the doctrine of reincarnation, thinking that perhaps he had lived in that house in a previous life. But he dismissed the idea as improbable. Later he concluded that before his birth he must have had previsions of the people, places, and events that he was to experience in his present incarnation; that was why, he thought, he could recognize them as soon as they presented themselves to him. At Raipur Narendra was encouraged by his father to meet notable scholars and discuss with them various intellectual topics usually considered too abstruse for boys of his age. On such occasions he exhibited great mental power. From his father, Narendra had learnt the art of grasping the essentials of things, seeing truth from the widest and most comprehensive standpoints, and holding to the real issue under discussion. In 1879 the family returned to Calcutta, and Narendra within a short time graduated from high school in the first division. In the meantime he had read a
  9. 9. great many standard books of English and Bengali literature. History was his favourite subject. He also acquired at this time an unusual method of reading a book and acquiring the knowledge of its subject-matter. To quote his own words: 'I could understand an author without reading every line of his book. I would read the first and last lines of a paragraph and grasp its meaning. Later I found that I could understand the subject-matter by reading only the first and last lines of a page. Afterwards I could follow the whole trend of a writer's argument by merely reading a few lines, though the author himself tried to explain the subject in five or more pages.' Soon the excitement of his boyhood days was over, and in 1879 Narendranath entered the Presidency College of Calcutta for higher studies. After a year he joined the General Assembly's Institution, founded by the Scottish General Missionary Board and later known as the Scottish Church College. It was from Hastie, the principal of the college and the professor of English literature, that he first heard the name Sri Ramakrishna. In college Narendra, now a handsome youth, muscular and agile, though slightly inclined to stoutness, enjoyed serious studies. During the first two years he studied Western logic. Thereafter he specialized in Western philosophy and the ancient and modern history of the different European nations. His memory was prodigious. It took him only three days to assimilate Green's History of the English People. Often, on the eve of an examination, he would read the whole night, keeping awake by drinking strong tea or coffee. About this time he came in contact with Sri Ramakrishna; this event, as we shall presently see, was to become the major turning-point of his life. As a result of his association with Sri Ramakrishna, his innate spiritual yearning was stirred up, and he began to feel the transitoriness of the world and the futility of academic education. The day before his B.A. examination, he suddenly felt an all-consuming love for God and, standing before the room of a college-mate, was heard to sing with great feeling: Sing ye, O mountains, O clouds, O great winds! Sing ye, sing ye, sing His glory! Sing with joy, all ye suns and moons and stars! Sing ye, sing ye, His glory! The friends, surprised, reminded him of the next day's examination, but Narendra was unconcerned; the shadow of the approaching monastic life was fast falling on him. He appeared for the examination, however, and easily passed.
  10. 10. About Narendra's scholarship, Professor Hastie once remarked: 'Narendra is a real genius. I have travelled far and wide, but have not yet come across a lad of his talents and possibilities even among the philosophical students in the German universities. He is bound to make his mark in life.' Narendra's many-sided genius found its expression in music, as well. He studied both instrumental and vocal music under expert teachers. He could play on many instruments, but excelled in singing. From a Moslem teacher he learnt Hindi, Urdu, and Persian songs, most of them of devotional nature. He also became associated with the Brahmo Samaj, an important religious movement of the time, which influenced him during this formative period of his life. The introduction of English education in India following the British conquest of the country brought Hindu society in contact with the intellectual and aggressive European culture. The Hindu youths who came under the spell of the new, dynamic way of life realized the many shortcomings of their own society. Under the Moslem rule, even before the coming of the British, the dynamic aspect of the Hindu culture had been suppressed and the caste-system stratified. The priests controlled the religious life of the people for their own selfish interest. Meaningless dogmas and lifeless ceremonies supplanted the invigorating philosophical teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The masses were exploited, moreover, by the landlords, and the lot of women was especially pitiable. Following the break-down of the Moslem rule, chaos reigned in every field of Indian life, social, political, religious, and economic. The newly introduced English education brought into sharp focus the many drawbacks of society, and various reform movements, both liberal and orthodox, were initiated to make the national life flow once more through healthy channels. The Brahmo Samaj, one of these liberal movements, captured the imagination of the educated youths of Bengal. Raja Rammohan Roy (1774-1833), the founder of this religious organization, broke away from the rituals, image worship, and priestcraft of orthodox Hinduism and exhorted his followers to dedicate themselves to the 'worship and adoration of the Eternal, the Unsearchable, the Immutable Being, who is the Author and the Preserver of the universe.' The Raja, endowed with a gigantic intellect, studied the Hindu, Moslem, Christian, and Buddhist scriptures and was the first Indian to realize the importance of the Western rational method for solving the diverse problems of Hindu society. He took a prominent part in the introduction of English education in India, which, though it at first produced a deleterious effect on the newly awakened Hindu consciousness, ultimately revealed to a few Indians the glorious heritage of their own indigenous civilization.
  11. 11. Among the prominent leaders of the Brahmo Samaj who succeeded Rammohan Roy were Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905), a great devotee of the Upanishads, and Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884), who was inclined to the rituals and doctrines of Christianity. The Brahmo Samaj, under their leadership, discarded many of the conventions of Hinduism such as rituals and the worship of God through images. Primarily a reformist movement, it directed its main energy to the emancipation of women, the remarriage of Hindu widows, the abolition of early marriage, and the spread of mass education. Influenced by Western culture, the Brahmo Samaj upheld the supremacy of reason, preached against the uncritical acceptance of scriptural authority, and strongly supported the slogans of the French Revolution. The whole movement was intellectual and eclectic in character, born of the necessity of the times; unlike traditional Hinduism, it had no root in the spiritual experiences of saints and seers. Narendra, like many other contemporary young men, felt the appeal of its progressive ideas and became one of its members. But, as will be presently seen, the Brahmo Samaj could not satisfy the deep spiritual yearning of his soul. About this time Narendra was urged by his father to marry, and an opportunity soon presented itself. A wealthy man, whose daughter Narendra was asked to accept as his bride, offered to defray his expenses for higher studies in England so that he might qualify himself for the much coveted Indian Civil Service. Narendra refused. Other proposals of similar nature produced no different result. Apparently it was not his destiny to lead a householder's life. From boyhood Narendra had shown a passion for purity. Whenever his warm and youthful nature tempted him to walk into a questionable adventure, he was held back by an unseen hand. His mother had taught him the value of chastity and had made him observe it as a matter of honour, in loyalty to herself and the family tradition. But purity to Narendra was not a negative virtue, a mere abstention from carnal pleasures. To be pure, he felt, was to conserve an intense spiritual force that would later manifest itself in all the noble aspirations of life. He regarded himself as a brahmacharin, a celibate student of the Hindu tradition, who worked hard, prized ascetic disciplines, held holy things in reverence, and enjoyed clean words, thoughts, and acts. For according to the Hindu scriptures, a man, by means of purity, which is the greatest of all virtues, can experience the subtlest spiritual perceptions. In Naren it accounts for the great power of concentration, memory, and insight, and for his indomitable mental energy and physical stamina. In his youth Narendra used to see every night two visions, utterly dissimilar in nature, before falling asleep. One was that of a worldly man with an accomplished wife and children, enjoying wealth, luxuries, fame, and social position; the other, that of a sannyasin, a wandering monk, bereft of earthly
  12. 12. security and devoted to the contemplation of God. Narendra felt that he had the power to realize either of these ideals; but when his mind reflected on their respective virtues, he was inevitably drawn to the life of renunciation. The glamour of the world would fade and disappear. His deeper self instinctively chose the austere path. For a time the congregational prayers and the devotional songs of the Brahmo Samaj exhilarated Narendra's mind, but soon he found that they did not give him any real spiritual experience. He wanted to realize God, the goal of religion, and so felt the imperative need of being instructed by a man who had seen God. In his eagerness he went to Devendranath, the venerable leader of the Brahmo Samaj, and asked him, even before the latter had uttered a word, 'Sir, have you seen God?' Devendranath was embarrassed and replied: 'My boy, you have the eyes of a yogi. You should practise meditation.' The youth was disappointed and felt that this teacher was not the man to help him in his spiritual struggle. But he received no better answer from the leaders of other religious sects. Then he remembered having heard the name of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa from Professor Hastie, who while lecturing his class on Wordsworth's poem The Excursion, had spoken of trances, remarking that such religious ecstasies were the result of purity and concentration. He had said, further, that an exalted experience of this kind was a rare phenomenon, especially in modern times. 'I have known,' he had said, 'only one person who has realized that blessed state, and he is Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar. You will understand trances if you visit the saint.' Narendra had also heard about Sri Ramakrishna from a relative, Ramchandra Datta, who was one of the foremost householder disciples of the Master. Learning of Narendra's unwillingness to marry and ascribing it to his desire to lead a spiritual life, Ramchandra had said to him, 'If you really want to cultivate spirituality, then visit Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar.' Narendra met Ramakrishna for the first time in November 1881 at the house of the Master's devotee Surendranath Mitra, the young man having been invited there to entertain the visitors with his melodious music. The Paramahamsa was much impressed by his sincerity and devotion, and after a few inquiries asked him to visit him at Dakshineswar. Narendra accepted. He wished to learn if Ramakrishna was the man to help him in his spiritual quest.
  13. 13. AT THE FEET OF RAMAKRISHNA Ramakrishna, the God-man of modern times, was born on February 18, 1836, in the little village of Kamarpukur, in the district of Hooghly in Bengal. How different were his upbringing and the environment of his boyhood from those of Narendranath, who was to become, later, the bearer and interpreter of his message! Ramakrishna's parents, belonging to the brahmin caste, were poor, pious, and devoted to the traditions of their ancient religion. Full of fun and innocent joys, the fair child, with flowing hair and a sweet, musical voice, grew up in a simple countryside of rice-fields, cows, and banyan and mango trees. He was apathetic about his studies and remained practically illiterate all his life, but his innate spiritual tendencies found expression through devotional songs and the company of wandering monks, who fired his boyish imagination by the stories of their spiritual adventures. At the age of six he experienced a spiritual ecstasy while watching a flight of snow-white cranes against a black sky overcast with rain-clouds. He began to go into trances as he meditated on gods and goddesses. His father's death, which left the family in straitened circumstances, deepened his spiritual mood. And so, though at the age of sixteen he joined his brother in Calcutta, he refused to go on there with his studies; for, as he remarked, he was simply not interested in an education whose sole purpose was to earn mere bread and butter. He felt a deep longing for the realization of God. The floodgate of Ramakrishna's emotion burst all bounds when he took up the duties of a priest in the Kali temple of Dakshineswar, where the Deity was worshipped as the Divine Mother. Ignorant of the scriptures and of the intricacies of ritual, Ramakrishna poured his whole soul into prayer, which often took the form of devotional songs. Food, sleep, and other physical needs were completely forgotten in an all-consuming passion for the vision of God. His nights were spent in contemplation in the neighbouring woods. Doubt sometimes alternated with hope; but an inner certainty and the testimony of the illumined saints sustained him in his darkest hours of despair. Formal worship or the mere sight of the image did not satisfy his inquiring mind; for he felt that a figure of stone could not be the bestower of peace and immortality. Behind the image there must be the real Spirit, which he was determined to behold. This was not an easy task. For a long time the Spirit played with him a teasing game of hide-and-seek, but at last it yielded to the demand of love on the part of the young devotee. When he felt the direct presence of the Divine Mother, Ramakrishna dropped unconscious to the floor, experiencing within himself a constant flow of bliss. This foretaste of what was to follow made him God-intoxicated, and whetted his appetite for further experience. He wished to see God uninterruptedly, with eyes open as well as closed. He therefore abandoned himself recklessly to the practice
  14. 14. of various extreme spiritual disciplines. To remove from his mind the least trace of the arrogance of his high brahmin caste, he used to clean stealthily the latrine at a pariah's house. Through a stern process of discrimination he effaced all sense of distinction between gold and clay. Purity became the very breath of his nostrils, and he could not regard a woman, even in a dream, in any other way except as his own mother or the Mother of the universe. For years his eyelids did not touch each other in sleep. And he was finally thought to be insane. Indeed, the stress of his spiritual practice soon told upon Ramakrishna's delicate body and he returned to Kamarpukur to recover his health. His relatives and old friends saw a marked change in his nature; for the gay boy had been transformed into a contemplative young man whose vision was directed to something on a distant horizon. His mother proposed marriage, and finding in this the will of the Divine Mother, Ramakrishna consented. He even indicated where the girl was to be found, namely, in the village of Jayrambati, only three miles away. Here lived the little Saradamani, a girl of five, who was in many respects very different from the other girls of her age. The child would pray to God to make her character as fragrant as the tuberose. Later, at Dakshineswar, she prayed to God to make her purer than the full moon, which, pure as it was, showed a few dark spots. The marriage was celebrated and Ramakrishna, participating, regarded the whole affair as fun or a new excitement. In a short while he came back to Dakshineswar and plunged again into the stormy life of religious experimentation. His mother, his newly married wife, and his relatives were forgotten. Now, however, his spiritual disciplines took a new course. He wanted to follow the time-honoured paths of the Hindu religion under the guidance of competent teachers, and they came to him one by one, nobody knew from where. One was a woman, under whom he practised the disciplines of Tantra and of the Vaishnava faith and achieved the highest result in an incredibly short time. It was she who diagnosed his physical malady as the manifestation of deep spiritual emotions and described his apparent insanity as the result of an agonizing love for God; he was immediately relieved. It was she, moreover, who first declared him to be an Incarnation of God, and she proved her statement before an assembly of theologians by scriptural evidence. Under another teacher, the monk Jatadhari, Ramakrishna delved into the mysteries of Rama worship and experienced Rama's visible presence. Further, he communed with God through the divine relationships of Father, Mother, Friend, and Beloved. By an austere sannyasin named Totapuri, he was initiated into the monastic life, and in three days he realized his complete oneness with Brahman, the undifferentiated Absolute, which is the culmination of man's spiritual endeavour. Totapuri himself had had to struggle for forty years to realize this identity. Ramakrishna turned next to Christianity and Islam, to practise their respective
  15. 15. disciplines, and he attained the same result that he had attained through Hinduism. He was thereby convinced that these, too, were ways to the realization of God-consciousness. Finally, he worshipped his own wife — who in the meantime had grown into a young woman of nineteen — as the manifestation of the Divine Mother of the universe and surrendered at her feet the fruit of his past spiritual practices. After this he left behind all his disciplines and struggles. For according to Hindu tradition, when the normal relationship between husband and wife, which is the strongest foundation of the worldly life, has been transcended and a man sees in his wife the divine presence, he then sees God everywhere in the universe. This is the culmination of the spiritual life. Ramakrishna himself was now convinced of his divine mission on earth and came to know that through him the Divine Mother would found a new religious order comprising those who would accept the doctrine of the Universal Religion which he had experienced. It was further revealed to him that anyone who had prayed to God sincerely, even once, as well as those who were passing through their final birth on earth, would accept him as their spiritual ideal and mould their lives according to his universal teaching. The people around him were bewildered to see this transformation of a man whom they had ridiculed only a short while ago as insane. The young priest had become God's devotee; the devotee, an ascetic; the ascetic, a saint; the saint, a man of realization; and the man of realization, a new Prophet. Like the full- blown blossom attracting bees, Ramakrishna drew to him men and women of differing faith, intelligence, and social position. He gave generously to all from the inexhaustible store house of divine wisdom, and everyone felt uplifted in his presence. But the Master himself was not completely satisfied. He longed for young souls yet untouched by the world, who would renounce everything for the realization of God and the service of humanity. He was literally consumed with this longing. The talk of worldly people was tasteless to him. He often compared such people to mixture of milk and water with the latter preponderating, and said that he had become weary of trying to prepare thick milk from the mixture. Evenings, when his anguish reached its limit, he would climb the roof of a building near the temple and cry at the top of his voice: 'Come, my boys! Oh, where are you all? I cannot bear to live without you!' A mother could not feel more intensely for her beloved children, a friend for his dearest friend, or a lover for her sweetheart. Shortly thereafter the young men destined to be his monastic disciples began to arrive. And foremost among them was Narendranath. The first meeting at Dakshineswar between the Master and Narendra was momentous. Sri Ramakrishna recognized instantaneously his future messenger.
  16. 16. Narendra, careless about his clothes and general appearance, was so unlike the other young men who had accompanied him to the temple. His eyes were impressive, partly indrawn, indicating a meditative mood. He sang a few songs, and as usual poured into them his whole soul. His first song was this: Let us go back once more, O mind, to our proper home! Here in this foreign land of earth Why should we wander aimlessly in stranger's guise? These living beings round about, And the five elements, Are strangers to you, all of them; none are your own. Why do you so forget yourself, In love with strangers, foolish mind? Why do you so forget your own? Mount the path of truth, O mind! Unflaggingly climb, With love as the lamp to light your way. As your provision on the journey, take with you The virtues, hidden carefully; For, like two highwaymen, Greed and delusion wait to rob you of your wealth. And keep beside you constantly, As guards to shelter you from harm, Calmness of mind and self-control. Companionship with holy men will be for you A welcome rest-house by the road; There rest your weary limbs awhile, asking your way, If ever you should be in doubt, Of him who watches there. If anything along the path should cause you fear, Then loudly shout the name of God; For He is ruler of that road, And even Death must bow to Him. When the singing was over, Sri Ramakrishna suddenly grasped Narendra's hand and took him into the northern porch. To Narendra's utter amazement, the Master said with tears streaming down his cheeks: 'Ah! you have come so late. How unkind of you to keep me waiting so long! My ears are almost seared listening to the cheap talk of worldly people. Oh, how I have been yearning to unburden my mind to one who will understand my thought!' Then with folded hands he said: 'Lord! I know you are the ancient sage
  17. 17. Nara — the Incarnation of Narayana — born on earth to remove the miseries of mankind.' The rationalist Naren regarded these words as the meaningless jargon of an insane person. He was further dismayed when Sri Ramakrishna presently brought from his room some sweets and fed him with his own hands. But the Master nevertheless extracted from him a promise to visit Dakshineswar again. They returned to the room and Naren asked the Master, 'Sir, have you seen God?' Without a moment's hesitation the reply was given: 'Yes, I have seen God. I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him. But who cares for God? People shed torrents of tears for their wives, children, wealth, and property, but who weeps for the vision of God? If one cries sincerely for God, one can surely see Him.' Narendra was astounded. For the first time, he was face to face with a man who asserted that he had seen God. For the first time, in fact, he was hearing that God could be seen. He could feel that Ramakrishna's words were uttered from the depths of an inner experience. They could not be doubted. Still he could not reconcile these words with Ramakrishna's strange conduct, which he had witnessed only a few minutes before. What puzzled Narendra further was Ramakrishna's normal behaviour in the presence of others. The young man returned to Calcutta bewildered, but yet with a feeling of inner peace. During his second visit to the Master, Narendra had an even stranger experience. After a minute or two Sri Ramakrishna drew near him in an ecstatic mood, muttered some words, fixed his eyes on him, and placed his right foot on Naren's body. At this touch Naren saw, with eyes open, the walls, the room, the temple garden — nay, the whole world — vanishing, and even himself disappearing into a void. He felt sure that he was facing death. He cried in consternation: 'What are you doing to me? I have my parents, brothers, and sisters at home.' The Master laughed and stroked Naren's chest, restoring him to his normal mood. He said, 'All right, everything will happen in due time.' Narendra, completely puzzled, felt that Ramakrishna had cast a hypnotic spell upon him. But how could that have been? Did he not pride himself in the possession of an iron will? He felt disgusted that he should have been unable to resist the influence of a madman. Nonetheless he felt a great inner attraction for Sri Ramakrishna. On his third visit Naren fared no better, though he tried his utmost to be on guard. Sri Ramakrishna took him to a neighbouring garden and, in a state of trance, touched him. Completely overwhelmed, Naren lost consciousness.
  18. 18. Sri Ramakrishna, referring later to this incident, said that after putting Naren into a state of unconsciousness, he had asked him many questions about his past, his mission in the world, and the duration of his present life. The answer had only confirmed what he himself had thought about these matters. Ramakrishna told his other disciples that Naren had attained perfection even before this birth; that he was an adept in meditation; and that the day Naren recognized his true self, he would give up the body by an act of will, through yoga. Often he was heard to say that Naren was one of the Saptarshis, or Seven Sages, who live in the realm of the Absolute. He narrated to them a vision he had had regarding the disciple's spiritual heritage. Absorbed, one day, in samadhi, Ramakrishna had found that his mind was soaring high, going beyond the physical universe of the sun, moon, and stars, and passing into the subtle region of ideas. As it continued to ascend, the forms of gods and goddesses were left behind, and it crossed the luminous barrier separating the phenomenal universe from the Absolute, entering finally the transcendental realm. There Ramakrishna saw seven venerable sages absorbed in meditation. These, he thought, must have surpassed even the gods and goddesses in wisdom and holiness, and as he was admiring their unique spirituality he saw a portion of the undifferentiated Absolute become congealed, as it were, and take the form of a Divine Child. Gently clasping the neck of one of the sages with His soft arms, the Child whispered something in his ear, and at this magic touch the sage awoke from meditation. He fixed his half-open eyes upon the wondrous Child, who said in great joy: 'I am going down to earth. Won't you come with me?' With a benign look the sage expressed assent and returned into deep spiritual ecstasy. Ramakrishna was amazed to observe that a tiny portion of the sage, however, descended to earth, taking the form of light, which struck the house in Calcutta where Narendra's family lived, and when he saw Narendra for the first time, he at once recognized him as the incarnation of the sage. He also admitted that the Divine Child who brought about the descent of the rishi was none other than himself. The meeting of Narendra and Sri Ramakrishna was an important event in the lives of both. A storm had been raging in Narendra's soul when he came to Sri Ramakrishna, who himself had passed through a similar struggle but was now firmly anchored in peace as a result of his intimate communion with the Godhead and his realization of Brahman as the immutable essence of all things. A genuine product of the Indian soil and thoroughly acquainted with the spiritual traditions of India, Sri Ramakrishna was ignorant of the modern way of thinking. But Narendra was the symbol of the modern spirit. Inquisitive, alert, and intellectually honest, he possessed an open mind and demanded rational proof before accepting any conclusion as valid. As a loyal member of the Brahmo
  19. 19. Samaj he was critical of image worship and the rituals of the Hindu religion. He did not feel the need of a guru, a human intermediary between God and man. He was even sceptical about the existence of such a person, who was said to be free from human limitations and to whom an aspirant was expected to surrender himself completely and offer worship as to God. Ramakrishna's visions of gods and goddesses he openly ridiculed, and called them hallucinations. For five years Narendra closely watched the Master, never allowing himself to be influenced by blind faith, always testing the words and actions of Sri Ramakrishna in the crucible of reason. It cost him many sorrows and much anguish before he accepted Sri Ramakrishna as the guru and the ideal of the spiritual life. But when the acceptance came, it was wholehearted, final, and irrevocable. The Master, too, was overjoyed to find a disciple who doubted, and he knew that Naren was the one to carry his message to the world. The inner process that gradually transformed the chrysalis of Narendra into a beautiful butterfly will for ever remain, like all deep spiritual mysteries, unknown to the outer world. People, however, noticed the growth of an intimate relationship between the loving, patient, and forgiving teacher and his imperious and stubborn disciple. The Master never once asked Naren to abandon reason. He met the challenge of Naren's intellect with his superior understanding, acquired through firsthand knowledge of the essence of things. When Naren's reasoning failed to solve the ultimate mystery, the teacher gave him the necessary insight. Thus, with infinite patience, love, and vigilance, he tamed the rebellious spirit, demanding complete obedience to moral and spiritual disciplines, without which the religious life can not be built on a firm foundation. The very presence of Narendranath would fill the Master's mind with indescribable joy and create ecstatic moods. He had already known, by many indications, of the disciple's future greatness, the manifestation of which awaited only the fullness of time, What others regarded in Naren as stubbornness or haughtiness appeared to Sri Ramakrishna as the expression of his manliness and self-reliance, born of his self-control and innate purity. He could not bear the slightest criticism of Naren and often said: 'Let no one judge him hastily. People will never understand him fully.' Ramakrishna loved Narendranath because he saw him as the embodiment of Narayana, the Divine Spirit, undefiled by the foul breath of the world. But he was criticized for his attachment. Once a trouble-maker of twisted mind named Hazra, who lived with the Master at Dakshineswar, said to him, 'If you long for Naren and the other youngsters all the time, when will you think of God?' The Master was distressed by this thought. But it was at once revealed to him that though God dwelt in all beings, He was especially manifest in a pure soul like Naren. Relieved of his worries, he then said: 'Oh, what a fool Hazra is! How he
  20. 20. unsettled my mind! But why blame the poor fellow? How could he know?' Sri Ramakrishna was outspoken in Narendra's praise. This often embarrassed the young disciple, who would criticize the Master for what he termed a sort of infatuation. One day Ramakrishna spoke highly of Keshab Sen and the saintly Vijay Goswami, the two outstanding leaders of the Brahmo Samaj. Then he added: 'If Keshab possesses one virtue which has made him world-famous, Naren is endowed with eighteen such virtues. I have seen in Keshab and Vijay the divine light burning like a candle flame, but in Naren it shines with the radiance of the sun.' Narendra, instead of feeling flattered by these compliments, became annoyed and sharply rebuked the Master for what he regarded as his foolhardiness. 'I cannot help it,' the Master protested. 'Do you think these are my words? The Divine Mother showed me certain things about you, which I repeated. And She reveals to me nothing but the truth.' But Naren was hardly convinced. He was sure that these so-called revelations were pure illusions. He carefully explained to Sri Ramakrishna that, from the viewpoint of Western science and philosophy, very often a man was deceived by his mind, and that the chances of deception were greater when a personal attachment was involved. He said to the Master, 'Since you love me and wish to see me great, these fancies naturally come to your mind.' The Master was perplexed. He prayed to the Divine Mother for light and was told: 'Why do you care about what he says? In a short time he will accept your every word as true.' On another occasion, when the Master was similarly reprimanded by the disciple, he was reassured by the Divine Mother. Thereupon he said to Naren with a smile: 'You are a rogue. I won't listen to you any more. Mother says that I love you because I see the Lord in you. The day I shall not see Him in you, I shall not be able to bear even the sight of you.' On account of his preoccupation with his studies, or for other reasons, Narendra could not come to Dakshineswar as often as Sri Ramakrishna wished. But the Master could hardly endure his prolonged absence. If the disciple had not visited him for a number of days, he would send someone to Calcutta to fetch him. Sometimes he went to Calcutta himself. One time, for example, Narendra remained away from Dakshineswar for several weeks; even the Master's eager importunities failed to bring him. Sri Ramakrishna knew that he sang regularly at the prayer meetings of the Brahmo Samaj, and so one day he made his way to the Brahmo temple that the disciple attended. Narendra was singing in the choir as the Master entered the hall, and when he heard Narendra's voice, Sri
  21. 21. Ramakrishna fell into a deep ecstasy. The eyes of the congregation turned to him, and soon a commotion followed. Narendra hurried to his side. One of the Brahmo leaders, in order to stop the excitement, put out the lights. The young disciple, realizing that the Master's sudden appearance was the cause of the disturbance, sharply took him to task. The latter answered, with tears in his eyes, that he had simply not been able to keep himself away from Narendra. On another occasion, Sri Ramakrishna, unable to bear Narendra's absence, went to Calcutta to visit the disciple at his own home. He was told that Naren was studying in an attic in the second floor that could be reached only by a steep staircase. His nephew Ramlal, who was a sort of caretaker of the Master, had accompanied him, and with his help Sri Ramakrishna climbed a few steps. Narendra appeared at the head of the stair, and at the very sight of him Sri Ramakrishna exclaimed, 'Naren, my beloved!' and went into ecstasy. With considerable difficulty Naren and Ramlal helped him to finish climbing the steps, and as he entered the room the Master fell into deep samadhi. A fellow student who was with Naren at the time and did not know anything of religious trances, asked Naren in bewilderment, 'Who is this man?' 'Never mind,' replied Naren. 'You had better go home now.' Naren often said that the 'Old Man,' meaning Ramakrishna, bound the disciple for ever to him by his love. 'What do worldly men,' he remarked, 'know about love? They only make a show of it. The Master alone loves us genuinely.' Naren, in return, bore a deep love for Sri Ramakrishna, though he seldom expressed it in words. He took delight in criticizing the Master's spiritual experiences as evidences of a lack of self-control. He made fun of his worship of Kali. 'Why do you come here,' Sri Ramakrishna once asked him, 'if you do not accept Kali, my Mother?' 'Bah! Must I accept Her,' Naren retorted, 'simply because I come to see you? I come to you because I love you.' 'All right,' said the Master, 'ere long you will not only accept my blessed Mother, but weep in Her name.' Turning to his other disciples, he said: 'This boy has no faith in the forms of God and tells me that my visions are pure imagination. But he is a fine lad of pure mind. He does not accept anything without direct evidence. He has studied much and cultivated great discrimination. He has fine judgement.'
  22. 22. TRAINING OF THE DISCIPLE It is hard to say when Naren actually accepted Sri Ramakrishna as his guru. As far as the master was concerned, the spiritual relationship was established at the first meeting at Dakshineswar, when he had touched Naren, stirring him to his inner depths. From that moment he had implicit faith in the disciple and bore him a great love. But he encouraged Naren in the independence of his thinking. The love and faith of the Master acted as a restraint upon the impetuous youth and became his strong shield against the temptations of the world. By gradual steps the disciple was then led from doubt to certainty, and from anguish of mind to the bliss of the Spirit. This, however, was not an easy attainment. Sri Ramakrishna, perfect teacher that he was, never laid down identical disciplines for disciples of diverse temperaments. He did not insist that Narendra should follow strict rules about food, nor did he ask him to believe in the reality of the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology. It was not necessary for Narendra's philosophic mind to pursue the disciplines of concrete worship. But a strict eye was kept on Naren's practice of discrimination, detachment, self- control, and regular meditation. Sri Ramakrishna enjoyed Naren's vehement arguments with the other devotees regarding the dogmas and creeds of religion and was delighted to hear him tear to shreds their unquestioning beliefs. But when, as often happened, Naren teased the gentle Rakhal for showing reverence to the Divine Mother Kali, the Master would not tolerate these attempts to unsettle the brother disciple's faith in the forms of God. As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, Narendra accepted its doctrine of monotheism and the Personal God. He also believed in the natural depravity of man. Such doctrines of non-dualistic Vedanta as the divinity of the soul and the oneness of existence he regarded as blasphemy; the view that man is one with God appeared to him pure nonsense. When the master warned him against thus limiting God's infinitude and asked him to pray to God to reveal to him His true nature, Narendra smiled. One day he was making fun of Sri Ramakrishna's non- dualism before a friend and said, 'What can be more absurd than to say that this jug is God, this cup is God, and that we too are God?' Both roared with laughter. Just then the Master appeared. Coming to learn the cause of their fun, he gently touched Naren and plunged into deep samadhi. The touch produced a magic effect, and Narendra entered a new realm of consciousness. He saw the whole universe permeated by the Divine Spirit and returned home in a daze. While eating his meal, he felt the presence of Brahman in everything — in the food, and in himself too. While walking in the street, he saw the carriages, the horses, the crowd, and himself as if made of the same substance. After a few days the intensity of the vision lessened to some extent, but still he could see the world
  23. 23. only as a dream. While strolling in a public park of Calcutta, he struck his head against the iron railing, several times, to see if they were real or a mere illusion of the mind. Thus he got a glimpse of non-dualism, the fullest realization of which was to come only later, at the Cossipore garden. Sri Ramakrishna was always pleased when his disciples put to the test his statements or behaviour before accepting his teachings. He would say: 'Test me as the money-changers test their coins. You must not believe me without testing me thoroughly.' The disciples often heard him say that his nervous system had undergone a complete change as a result of his spiritual experiences, and that he could not bear the touch of any metal, such as gold or silver. One day, during his absence in Calcutta, Narendra hid a coin under Ramakrishna's bed. After his return when the Master sat on the bed, he started up in pain as if stung by an insect. The mattress was examined and the hidden coin was found. Naren, on the other hand, was often tested by the Master. One day, when he entered the Master's room, he was completely ignored. Not a word of greeting was uttered. A week later he came back and met with the same indifference, and during the third and fourth visits saw no evidence of any thawing of the Master's frigid attitude. At the end of a month Sri Ramakrishna said to Naren, 'I have not exchanged a single word with you all this time, and still you come.' The disciple replied: 'I come to Dakshineswar because I love you and want to see you. I do not come here to hear your words.' The Master was overjoyed. Embracing the disciple, he said: 'I was only testing you. I wanted to see if you would stay away on account of my outward indifference. Only a man of your inner strength could put up with such indifference on my part. Anyone else would have left me long ago.' On one occasion Sri Ramakrishna proposed to transfer to Narendranath many of the spiritual powers that he had acquired as a result of his ascetic disciplines and visions of God. Naren had no doubt concerning the Master's possessing such powers. He asked if they would help him to realize God. Sri Ramakrishna replied in the negative but added that they might assist him in his future work as a spiritual teacher. 'Let me realize God first,' said Naren, 'and then I shall perhaps know whether or not I want supernatural powers. If I accept them now, I may forget God, make selfish use of them, and thus come to grief.' Sri Ramakrishna was highly pleased to see his chief disciple's single-minded devotion. Several factors were at work to mould the personality of young Narendranath.
  24. 24. Foremost of these were his inborn spiritual tendencies, which were beginning to show themselves under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna, but against which his rational mind put up a strenuous fight. Second was his habit of thinking highly and acting nobly, disciplines acquired from a mother steeped in the spiritual heritage of India. Third were his broadmindedness and regard for truth wherever found, and his sceptical attitude towards the religious beliefs and social conventions of the Hindu society of his time. These he had learnt from his English-educated father, and he was strengthened in them through his own contact with Western culture. With the introduction in India of English education during the middle of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, Western science, history, and philosophy were studied in the Indian colleges and universities. The educated Hindu youths, allured by the glamour, began to mould their thought according to this new light, and Narendra could not escape the influence. He developed a great respect for the analytical scientific method and subjected many of the Master's spiritual visions to such scrutiny. The English poets stirred his feelings, especially Wordsworth and Shelley, and he took a course in Western medicine to understand the functioning of the nervous system, particularly the brain and spinal cord, in order to find out the secrets of Sri Ramakrishna's trances. But all this only deepened his inner turmoil. John Stuart Mill's Three Essays on Religion upset his boyish theism and the easy optimism imbibed from the Brahmo Samaj. The presence of evil in nature and man haunted him and he could not reconcile it at all with the goodness of an omnipotent Creator. Hume's scepticism and Herbert Spencer's doctrine of the Unknowable filled his mind with a settled philosophical agnosticism. After the wearing out of his first emotional freshness and naivete, he was beset with a certain dryness and incapacity for the old prayers and devotions. He was filled with an ennui which he concealed, however, under his jovial nature. Music, at this difficult stage of his life, rendered him great help; for it moved him as nothing else and gave him a glimpse of unseen realities that often brought tears to his eyes. Narendra did not have much patience with humdrum reading, nor did he care to absorb knowledge from books as much as from living communion and personal experience. He wanted life to be kindled by life, and thought kindled by thought. He studied Shelley under a college friend, Brajendranath Seal, who later became the leading Indian philosopher of his time, and deeply felt with the poet his pantheism, impersonal love, and vision of a glorified millennial humanity. The universe, no longer a mere lifeless, loveless mechanism, was seen to contain a spiritual principle of unity. Brajendranath, moreover, tried to present him with a synthesis of the Supreme Brahman of Vedanta, the Universal Reason of Hegel, and the gospel of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity of the French Revolution. By
  25. 25. accepting as the principle of morals the sovereignty of the Universal Reason and the negation of the individual, Narendra achieved an intellectual victory over scepticism and materialism, but no peace of mind. Narendra now had to face a new difficulty. The 'ballet of bloodless categories' of Hegel and his creed of Universal Reason required of Naren a suppression of the yearning and susceptibility of his artistic nature and joyous temperament, the destruction of the cravings of his keen and acute senses, and the smothering of his free and merry conviviality. This amounted almost to killing his own true self. Further, he could not find in such a philosophy any help in the struggle of a hot-blooded youth against the cravings of the passions, which appeared to him as impure, gross, and carnal. Some of his musical associates were men of loose morals for whom he felt a bitter and undisguised contempt. Narendra therefore asked his friend Brajendra if the latter knew the way of deliverance from the bondage of the senses, but he was told only to rely upon Pure Reason and to identify the self with it, and was promised that through this he would experience an ineffable peace. The friend was a Platonic transcendentalist and did not have faith in what he called the artificial prop of grace, or the mediation of a guru. But the problems and difficulties of Narendra were very different from those of his intellectual friend. He found that mere philosophy was impotent in the hour of temptation and in the struggle for his soul's deliverance. He felt the need of a hand to save, to uplift, to protect — shakti or power outside his rational mind that would transform his impotence into strength and glory. He wanted a flesh-and-blood reality established in peace and certainty, in short, a living guru, who, by embodying perfection in the flesh, would compose the commotion of his soul. The leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, as well as those of the other religious sects, had failed. It was only Ramakrishna who spoke to him with authority, as none had spoken before, and by his power brought peace into the troubled soul and healed the wounds of the spirit. At first Naren feared that the serenity that possessed him in the presence of the Master was illusory, but his misgivings were gradually vanquished by the calm assurance transmitted to him by Ramakrishna out of his own experience of Satchidananda Brahman — Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss Absolute. (This account of the struggle of Naren's collegiate days summarizes an article on Swami Vivekananda by Brajendranath Seal, published in the Life of Swami Vivekananda by the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, India.) Narendra could not but recognize the contrast of the Sturm und Drang of his soul with the serene bliss in which Sri Ramakrishna was always bathed. He begged the Master to teach him meditation, and Sri Ramakrishna's reply was to him a source of comfort and strength. The Master said: 'God listens to our sincere prayer. I can swear that you can see God and talk with Him as intensely as you see me and talk with me. You can hear His words and feel His touch.'
  26. 26. Further the Master declared: 'You may not believe in divine forms, but if you believe in an Ultimate Reality who is the Regulator of the universe, you can pray to Him thus: "O God, I do not know Thee. Be gracious to reveal to me Thy real nature." He will certainly listen to you if your prayer is sincere.' Narendra, intensifying his meditation under the Master's guidance, began to lose consciousness of the body and to feel an inner peace, and this peace would linger even after the meditation was over. Frequently he felt the separation of the body from the soul. Strange perceptions came to him in dreams, producing a sense of exaltation that persisted after he awoke. The guru was performing his task in an inscrutable manner, Narendra's friends observed only his outer struggle; but the real transformation was known to the teacher alone — or perhaps to the disciple too. In 1884, when Narendranath was preparing for the B.A. examination, his family was struck by a calamity. His father suddenly died, and the mother and children were plunged into great grief. For Viswanath, a man of generous nature, had lived beyond his means, and his death burdened the family with a heavy debt. Creditors, like hungry wolves, began to prowl about the door, and to make matters worse, certain relatives brought a lawsuit for the partition of the ancestral home. Though they lost it, Narendra was faced, thereafter, with poverty. As the eldest male member of the family, he had to find the wherewithal for the feeding of seven or eight mouths and began to hunt a job. He also attended the law classes. He went about clad in coarse clothes, barefoot, and hungry. Often he refused invitations for dinner from friends, remembering his starving mother, brothers, and sisters at home. He would skip family meals on the fictitious plea that he had already eaten at a friend's house, so that the people at home might receive a larger share of the scanty food. The Datta family was proud and would not dream of soliciting help from outsiders. With his companions Narendra was his usual gay self. His rich friends no doubt noticed his pale face, but they did nothing to help. Only one friend sent occasional anonymous aid, and Narendra remained grateful to him for life. Meanwhile, all his efforts to find employment failed. Some friends who earned money in a dishonest way asked him to join them, and a rich woman sent him an immoral proposal, promising to put an end to his financial distress. But Narendra gave to these a blunt rebuff. Sometimes he would wonder if the world were not the handiwork of the Devil — for how could one account for so much suffering in God's creation? One day, after a futile search for a job, he sat down, weary and footsore, in the big park of Calcutta in the shadow of the Ochterlony monument. There some friends joined him and one of them sang a song, perhaps to console him, describing God's abundant grace.
  27. 27. Bitterly Naren said: 'Will you please stop that song? Such fancies are, no doubt, pleasing to those who are born with silver spoons in their mouths. Yes, there was a time when I, too, thought like that. But today these ideas appear to me a mockery.' The friends were bewildered. One morning, as usual, Naren left his bed repeating God's name, and was about to go out in search of work after seeking divine blessings. His mother heard the prayer and said bitterly: 'Hush, you fool! You have been crying yourself hoarse for God since your childhood. Tell me what has God done for you?' Evidently the crushing poverty at home was too much for the pious mother. These words stung Naren to the quick. A doubt crept into his mind about God's existence and His Providence. It was not in Naren's nature to hide his feelings. He argued before his friends and the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna about God's non-existence and the futility of prayer even if God existed. His over-zealous friends thought he had become an atheist and ascribed to him many unmentionable crimes, which he had supposedly committed to forget his misery. Some of the devotees of the Master shared these views. Narendra was angry and mortified to think that they could believe him to have sunk so low. He became hardened and justified drinking and the other dubious pleasures resorted to by miserable people for a respite from their suffering. He said, further, that he himself would not hesitate to follow such a course if he were assured of its efficacy. Openly asserting that only cowards believed in God for fear of hell-fire, he argued the possibility of God's non-existence and quoted Western philosophers in support of his position. And when the devotees of the Master became convinced that he was hopelessly lost, he felt a sort of inner satisfaction. A garbled report of the matter reached Sri Ramakrishna, and Narendra thought that perhaps the Master, too, doubted his moral integrity. The very idea revived his anger. 'Never mind,' he said to himself. 'If good or bad opinion of a man rests on such flimsy grounds, I don't care.' But Narendra was mistaken. For one day Bhavanath, a devotee of the master and an intimate friend of Narendra, cast aspersions on the latter's character, and the Master said angrily: 'Stop, you fool! The Mother has told me that it is simply not true. I shan't look at your face if you speak to me again that way.' The fact was that Narendra could not, in his heart of hearts, disbelieve in God. He remembered the spiritual visions of his own boyhood and many others that he had experienced in the company of the Master. Inwardly he longed to
  28. 28. understand God and His ways. And one day he gained this understanding. It happened in the following way: He had been out since morning in a soaking rain in search of employment, having had neither food nor rest for the whole day. That evening he sat down on the porch of a house by the roadside, exhausted. He was in a daze. Thoughts began to flit before his mind, which he could not control. Suddenly he had a strange vision, which lasted almost the whole night. He felt that veil after veil was removed from before his soul, and he understood the reconciliation of God's justice with His mercy. He came to know — but he never told how — that misery could exist in the creation of a compassionate God without impairing His sovereign power or touching man's real self. He understood the meaning of it all and was at peace. Just before daybreak, refreshed both in body and in mind, he returned home. This revelation profoundly impressed Narendranath. He became indifferent to people's opinion and was convinced that he was not born to lead an ordinary worldly life, enjoying the love of a wife and children and physical luxuries. He recalled how the several proposals of marriage made by his relatives had come to nothing, and he ascribed all this to God's will. The peace and freedom of the monastic life cast a spell upon him. He determined to renounce the world, and set a date for this act. Then, coming to learn that Sri Ramakrishna would visit Calcutta that very day, he was happy to think that he could embrace the life of a wandering monk with his guru's blessings. When they met, the Master persuaded his disciple to accompany him to Dakshineswar. As they arrived in his room, Sri Ramakrishna went into an ecstatic mood and sang a song, while tears bathed his eyes. The words of the song clearly indicated that the Master knew of the disciple's secret wish. When other devotees asked him about the cause of his grief, Sri Ramakrishna said, 'Oh, never mind, it is something between me and Naren, and nobody else's business.' At night he called Naren to his side and said with great feeling: 'I know you are born for Mother's work. I also know that you will be a monk. But stay in the world as long as I live, for my sake at least.' He wept again. Soon after, Naren procured a temporary job, which was sufficient to provide a hand-to-mouth living for the family. One day Narendra asked himself why, since Kali, the Divine Mother listened to Sri Ramakrishna prayers, should not the Master pray to Her to relieve his poverty. When he told Sri Ramakrishna about this idea, the latter inquired why he did not pray himself to Kali, adding that Narendranath suffered because he did not acknowledge Kali as the Sovereign Mistress of the universe.
  29. 29. 'Today,' the Master continued, 'is a Tuesday, an auspicious day for the Mother's worship. Go to Her shrine in the evening, prostrate yourself before the image, and pray to Her for any boon; it will be granted. Mother Kali is the embodiment of Love and Compassion. She is the Power of Brahman. She gives birth to the world by Her mere wish. She fulfils every sincere prayer of Her devotees.' At nine o'clock in the evening, Narendranath went to the Kali temple. Passing through the courtyard, he felt within himself a surge of emotion, and his heart leapt with joy in anticipation of the vision of the Divine Mother. Entering the temple, he cast his eyes upon the image and found the stone figure to be nothing else but the living Goddess, the Divine Mother Herself, ready to give him any boon he wanted — either a happy worldly life or the joy of spiritual freedom. He was in ecstasy. He prayed for the boon of wisdom, discrimination, renunciation, and Her uninterrupted vision, but forgot to ask the Deity for money. He felt great peace within as he returned to the Master's room, and when asked if he had prayed for money, was startled. He said that he had forgotten all about it. The Master told him to go to the temple again and pray to the Divine Mother to satisfy his immediate needs. Naren did as he was bidden, but again forgot his mission. The same thing happened a third time. Then Naren suddenly realized that Sri Ramakrishna himself had made him forget to ask the Divine Mother for worldly things; perhaps he wanted Naren to lead a life of renunciation. So he now asked Sri Ramakrishna to do something for the family. The master told the disciple that it was not Naren's destiny to enjoy a worldly life, but assured him that the family would be able to eke out a simple existence. The above incident left a deep impression upon Naren's mind; it enriched his spiritual life, for he gained a new understanding of the Godhead and Its ways in the phenomenal universe. Naren's idea of God had hitherto been confined either to that of a vague Impersonal Reality or to that of an extracosmic Creator removed from the world. He now realized that the Godhead is immanent in the creation, that after projecting the universe from within Itself, It has entered into all created entities as life and consciousness, whether manifest or latent. This same immanent Spirit, or the World Soul, when regarded as a person creating, preserving, and destroying the universe, is called the Personal God, and is worshipped by different religions through such a relationship as that of father, mother, king, or beloved. These relationships, he came to understand, have their appropriate symbols, and Kali is one of them. Embodying in Herself creation and destruction, love and terror, life and death, Kali is the symbol of the total universe. The eternal cycle of the manifestation and non-manifestation of the universe is the breathing-out and breathing-in of this Divine Mother. In one aspect She is death, without which there cannot be life. She is smeared with blood, since without blood the picture of the phenomenal universe is not complete. To the wicked who have transgressed Her
  30. 30. laws, She is the embodiment of terror, and to the virtuous, the benign Mother. Before creation She contains within Her womb the seed of the universe, which is left from the previous cycle. After the manifestation of the universe She becomes its preserver and nourisher, and at the end of the cycle She draws it back within Herself and remains as the undifferentiated Sakti, the creative power of Brahman. She is non-different from Brahman. When free from the acts of creation, preservation, and destruction, the Spirit, in Its acosmic aspect, is called Brahman; otherwise It is known as the World Soul or the Divine Mother of the universe. She is therefore the doorway to the realization of the Absolute; She is the Absolute. To the daring devotee who wants to see the transcendental Absolute, She reveals that form by withdrawing Her phenomenal aspect. Brahman is Her transcendental aspect. She is the Great Fact of the universe, the totality of created beings. She is the Ruler and the Controller. All this had previously been beyond Narendra's comprehension. He had accepted the reality of the phenomenal world and yet denied the reality of Kali. He had been conscious of hunger and thirst, pain and pleasure, and the other characteristics of the world, and yet he had not accepted Kali, who controlled them all. That was why he had suffered. But on that auspicious Tuesday evening the scales dropped from his eyes. He accepted Kali as the Divine Mother of the universe. He became Her devotee. Many years later he wrote to an American lady: 'Kali worship is my special fad.' But he did not preach Her in public, because he thought that all that modern man required was to be found in the Upanishads. Further, he realized that the Kali symbol would not be understood by universal humanity. Narendra enjoyed the company of the Master for six years, during which time his spiritual life was moulded. Sri Ramakrishna was a wonderful teacher in every sense of the word. Without imposing his ideas upon anyone, he taught more by the silent influence of his inner life than by words or even by personal example. To live near him demanded of the disciple purity of thought and concentration of mind. He often appeared to his future monastic followers as their friend and playmate. Through fun and merriment he always kept before them the shining ideal of God-realization. He would not allow any deviation from bodily and mental chastity, nor any compromise with truth and renunciation. Everything else he left to the will of the Divine Mother. Narendra was his 'marked' disciple, chosen by the Lord for a special mission. Sri Ramakrishna kept a sharp eye on him, though he appeared to give the disciple every opportunity to release his pent-up physical and mental energy. Before him, Naren often romped about like a young lion cub in the presence of a firm but indulgent parent. His spiritual radiance often startled the Master, who saw that maya, the Great Enchantress, could not approach within 'ten feet' of that blazing
  31. 31. fire. Narendra always came to the Master in the hours of his spiritual difficulties. One time he complained that he could not meditate in the morning on account of the shrill note of a whistle from a neighbouring mill, and was advised by the Master to concentrate on the very sound of the whistle. In a short time he overcame the distraction. Another time he found it difficult to forget the body at the time of meditation. Sri Ramakrishna sharply pressed the space between Naren's eyebrows and asked him to concentrate on that sensation. The disciple found this method effective. Witnessing the religious ecstasy of several devotees, Narendra one day said to the Master that he too wanted to experience it. 'My child,' he was told, 'when a huge elephant enters a small pond, a great commotion is set up, but when it plunges into the Ganga, the river shows very little agitation. These devotees are like small ponds; a little experience makes their feelings flow over the brim. But you are a huge river.' Another day the thought of excessive spiritual fervour frightened Naren. The Master reassured him by saying: 'God is like an ocean of sweetness; wouldn't you dive into it? Suppose there is a bowl filled with syrup, and you are a fly, hungry for the sweet liquid. How would you like to drink it?' Narendra said that he would sit on the edge of the bowl, otherwise he might be drowned in the syrup and lose his life. 'But,' the Master said, 'you must not forget that I am talking of the Ocean of Satchidananda, the Ocean of Immortality. Here one need not be afraid of death. Only fools say that one should not have too much of divine ecstasy. Can anybody carry to excess the love of God? You must dive deep in the Ocean of God.' On one occasion Narendra and some of his brother disciples were vehemently arguing about God's nature — whether He was personal or impersonal, whether Divine Incarnation was fact or myth, and so forth and so on. Narendra silenced his opponents by his sharp power of reasoning and felt jubilant at his triumph. Sri Ramakrishna enjoyed the discussion and after it was over sang in an ecstatic mood: How are you trying, O my mind, to know the nature of God? You are groping like a madman locked in a dark room. He is grasped through ecstatic love;
  32. 32. how can you fathom Him without it? Only through affirmation, never negation, can you know Him; Neither through Veda nor through Tantra nor the six darsanas. All fell silent, and Narendra realized the inability of the intellect to fathom God's mystery. In his heart of hearts Naren was a lover of God. Pointing to his eyes, Ramakrishna said that only a bhakta possessed such a tender look; the eyes of the jnani were generally dry. Many a time, in his later years, Narendra said, comparing his own spiritual attitude with that of the Master: 'He was a jnani within, but a bhakta without; but I am a bhakta within, and a jnani without.' He meant that Ramakrishna's gigantic intellect was hidden under a thin layer of devotion, and Narendra's devotional nature was covered by a cloak of knowledge. We have already referred to the great depth of Sri Ramakrishna's love for his beloved disciple. He was worried about the distress of Naren's family and one day asked a wealthy devotee if he could not help Naren financially. Naren's pride was wounded and he mildly scolded the Master. The latter said with tears in his eyes: 'O my Naren! I can do anything for you, even beg from door to door.' Narendra was deeply moved but said nothing. Many days after, he remarked, 'The Master made me his slave by his love for me.' This great love of Sri Ramakrishna enabled Naren to face calmly the hardships of life. Instead of hardening into a cynic, he developed a mellowness of heart. But, as will be seen later, Naren to the end of his life was often misunderstood by his friends. A bold thinker, he was far ahead of his time. Once he said: 'Why should I expect to be understood? It is enough that they love me. After all, who am I? The Mother knows best. She can do Her own work. Why should I think myself to be indispensable?' The poverty at home was not an altogether unmitigated evil. It drew out another side of Naren's character. He began to feel intensely for the needy and afflicted. Had he been nurtured in luxury, the Master used to say, he would perhaps have become a different person — a statesman, a lawyer, an orator, or a social reformer. But instead, he dedicated his life to the service of humanity. Sri Ramakrishna had had the prevision of Naren's future life of renunciation. Therefore he was quite alarmed when he came to know of the various plans
  33. 33. made by Naren's relatives for his marriage. Prostrating himself in the shrine of Kali, he prayed repeatedly: 'O Mother! Do break up these plans. Do not let him sink in the quagmire of the world.' He closely watched Naren and warned him whenever he discovered the trace of an impure thought in his mind. Naren's keen mind understood the subtle implications of Sri Ramakrishna's teachings. One day the Master said that the three salient disciplines of Vaishnavism were love of God's name, service to the devotees, and compassion for all living beings. But he did not like the word compassion and said to the devotees: 'How foolish to speak of compassion! Man is an insignificant worm crawling on the earth — and he to show compassion to others! This is absurd. It must not be compassion, but service to all. Recognize them as God's manifestations and serve them.' The other devotees heard the words of the Master but could hardly understand their significance. Naren, however fathomed the meaning. Taking his young friends aside, he said that Sri Ramakrishna's remarks had thrown wonderful light on the philosophy of non-dualism with its discipline of non-attachment, and on that of dualism with its discipline of love. The two were not really in conflict. A non-dualist did not have to make his heart dry as sand, nor did he have to run away from the world. As Brahman alone existed in all men, a non-dualist must love all and serve all. Love, in the true sense of the word, is not possible unless one sees God in others. Naren said that the Master's words also reconciled the paths of knowledge and action. An illumined person did not have to remain inactive; he could commune with Brahman through service to other embodied beings, who also are embodiments of Brahman. 'If it be the will of God,' Naren concluded, 'I shall one day proclaim this noble truth before the world at large. I shall make it the common property of all — the wise and the fool, the rich and the poor, the brahmin and the pariah.' Years later he expressed these sentiments in a noble poem which concluded with the following words: Thy God is here before thee now, Revealed in all these myriad forms: Rejecting them, where seekest thou His presence? He who freely shares His love with every living thing Proffers true service unto God. It was Sri Ramakrishna who re-educated Narendranath in the essentials of Hinduism. He, the fulfilment of the spiritual aspirations of the three hundred millions of Hindus for the past three thousand years, was the embodiment of the Hindu faith. The beliefs Narendra had learnt on his mother's lap had been
  34. 34. shattered by a collegiate education, but the young man now came to know that Hinduism does not consist of dogmas or creeds; it is an inner experience, deep and inclusive, which respects all faiths, all thoughts, all efforts and all realizations. Unity in diversity is its ideal. Narendra further learnt that religion is a vision which, at the end, transcends all barriers of caste and race and breaks down the limitations of time and space. He learnt from the Master that the Personal God and worship through symbols ultimately lead the devotee to the realization of complete oneness with the Deity. The Master taught him the divinity of the soul, the non-duality of the Godhead, the unity of existence, and the harmony of religions. He showed Naren by his own example how a man in this very life could reach perfection, and the disciple found that the Master had realized the same God-consciousness by following the diverse disciplines of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. One day the Master, in an ecstatic mood, said to the devotees: 'There are many opinions and many ways. I have seen them all and do not like them any more. The devotees of different faiths quarrel among themselves. Let me tell you something. You are my own people. There are no strangers around. I clearly see that God is the whole and I am a part of Him. He is the Lord and I am His servant. And sometimes I think He is I and I am He.' Narendra regarded Sri Ramakrishna as the embodiment of the spirit of religion and did not bother to know whether he was or not an Incarnation of God. He was reluctant to cast the Master in any theological mould. It was enough for Naren if he could see through the vista of Ramakrishna's spiritual experiences all the aspects of the Godhead. How did Narendra impress the other devotees of the Master, especially the youngsters? He was their idol. They were awed by his intellect and fascinated by his personality. In appearance he was a dynamic youth, overflowing with vigour and vitality, having a physical frame slightly over middle height and somewhat thickset in the shoulders. He was graceful without being feminine. He had a strong jaw, suggesting his staunch will and fixed determination. The chest was expansive, and the breadth of the head towards the front signified high mental power and development. But the most remarkable thing about him was his eyes, which Sri Ramakrishna compared to lotus petals. They were prominent but not protruding, and part of the time their gaze was indrawn, suggesting the habit of deep meditation; their colour varied according to the feeling of the moment. Sometimes they would be luminous in profundity, and sometimes they sparkled in merriment. Endowed with the native grace of an animal, he was free in his movements. He walked sometimes with a slow gait and sometimes with rapidity, always a part of his
  35. 35. mind absorbed in deep thought. And it was a delight to hear his resonant voice, either in conversation or in music. But when Naren was serious his face often frightened his friends. In a heated discussion his eyes glowed. If immersed in his own thoughts, he created such an air of aloofness that no one dared to approach him. Subject to various moods, sometimes he showed utter impatience with his environment, and sometimes a tenderness that melted everybody's heart. His smile was bright and infectious. To some he was a happy dreamer, to some he lived in a real world rich with love and beauty, but to all he unfailingly appeared a scion of an aristocratic home. And how did the Master regard his beloved disciple? To quote his own words: 'Narendra belongs to a very high plane — the realm of the Absolute. He has a manly nature. So many devotees come here, but there is no one like him. 'Every now and then I take stock of the devotees. I find that some are like lotuses with ten petals, some like lotuses with a hundred petals. But among lotuses Narendra is a thousand-petalled one. 'Other devotees may be like pots or pitchers; but Narendra is a huge water- barrel. 'Others may be like pools or tanks; but Narendra is a huge reservoir like the Haldarpukur. 'Among fish, Narendra is a huge red-eyed carp; others are like minnows or smelts or sardines. 'Narendra is a "very big receptacle", one that can hold many things. He is like a bamboo with a big hollow space inside. 'Narendra is not under the control of anything. He is not under the control of attachment or sense pleasures. He is like a male pigeon. If you hold a male pigeon by its beak, it breaks away from you; but the female pigeon keeps still. I feel great strength when Narendra is with me in a gathering.' Sometime about the middle of 1885 Sri Ramakrishna showed the first symptoms of a throat ailment that later was diagnosed as cancer. Against the advice of the physicians, he continued to give instruction to spiritual seekers, and to fall into frequent trances. Both of these practices aggravated the illness. For the convenience of the physicians and the devotees, he was at first removed to a house in the northern section of Calcutta and then to a garden house at Cossipore, a suburb of the city. Narendra and the other young disciples took
  36. 36. charge of nursing him. Disregarding the wishes of their guardians, the boys gave up their studies or neglected their duties at home, at least temporarily, in order to devote themselves heart and soul to the service of the Master. His wife, known among the devotees as the Holy Mother, looked after the cooking; the older devotees met the expenses. All regarded this service to the guru as a blessing and privilege. Narendra time and again showed his keen insight and mature judgement during Sri Ramakrishna's illness. Many of the devotees, who looked upon the Master as God's Incarnation and therefore refused to see in him any human frailty, began to give a supernatural interpretation of his illness. They believed that it had been brought about by the will of the Divine Mother or the Master himself to fulfil an inscrutable purpose, and that it would be cured without any human effort after the purpose was fulfilled. Narendra said, however, that since Sri Ramakrishna was a combination of God and man the physical element in him was subject to such laws of nature as birth, growth, decay, and destruction. He refused to give the Master's disease, a natural phenomenon, any supernatural explanation. Nonetheless, he was willing to shed his last drop of blood in the service of Sri Ramakrishna. Emotion plays an important part in the development of the spiritual life. While intellect removes the obstacles, it is emotion that gives the urge to the seeker to move forward. But mere emotionalism without the disciplines of discrimination and renunciation often leads him astray. He often uses it as a short cut to trance or ecstasy. Sri Ramakrishna, no doubt, danced and wept while singing God's name and experienced frequent trances; but behind his emotion there was the long practice of austerities and renunciation. His devotees had not witnessed the practice of his spiritual disciplines. Some of them, especially the elderly householders, began to display ecstasies accompanied by tears and physical contortions, which in many cases, as later appeared, were the result of careful rehearsal at home or mere imitation of Sri Ramakrishna's genuine trances. Some of the devotees, who looked upon the Master as a Divine Incarnation, thought that he had assumed their responsibilities, and therefore they relaxed their own efforts. Others began to speculate about the part each of them was destined to play in the new dispensation of Sri Ramakrishna. In short, those who showed the highest emotionalism posed as the most spiritually advanced. Narendra's alert mind soon saw this dangerous trend in their lives. He began to make fun of the elders and warned his young brother disciples about the harmful effect of indulging in such outbursts. Real spirituality, he told them over and over again, was the eradication of worldly tendencies and the development of man's higher nature. He derided their tears and trances as symptoms of nervous disorder, which should be corrected by the power of the will, and, if necessary, by nourishing food and proper medical treatment. Very often, he said, unwary